The novel begins elliptically with a figure identified only as “R” following an elderly man named Pierre Brossard in southern France. When R intercepts the man on a mountain road, Brossard shoots him and rolls his car off a cliff. Among R’s possessions is a piece of paper declaring that Brossard is a former chief in the Vichy government responsible for the execution of fourteen Jews in 1944. Brossard abruptly terminates his stay in a monastery, to head further south and seek refuge in another abbey.
Brossard has spent twenty-five years evading justice by shielding himself with sympathetic and powerful clerics in the Catholic church and influential members of the police. Brossard was captured by the police after the war, and during interrogations by Commissaire Vionnet he offered a confession that led to the capture and punishment of others, earning him a reprieve from punishment.
A new agent, T (David Tanenbaum), is recruited to finish R’s mission, and thus begins a complicated game of hide-and- seek, as the aged Brossard continually gives the younger man the slip. Also involved in the chase of Brossard is Colonel Roux working in concert with Judge Annemarie Livi who plan to capture the fugitive before he is executed and to use his confession to bring more prominent officials and malefactors to justice. Simultaneously the Catholic church, through Archbishop Delavigne, has issued an order that war criminals, and Brossard in particular, are not to be aided in any way.
As old sanctuaries are closed to him and when he discovers T following him, he returns to his wife, whom he has not seen in years, and stays in her flat for a few days. Dutifully Brossard phones Vionnet to report his next destination, who in turn notifies T of Brossard’s next move. Brossard is suspicious of a stranger in a bar, shoots and kills the man (T), who, like R, appears to have been hired by a Jewish group to exact rough justice. Vionnet now arranges with a colleague to kill Brossard, while Roux searches abbeys Brossard has visited and learns of his patterns and the financial support he has been receiving. Brossard is killed when he meets Vionnet’s colleague who lures the fugitive with the promise of a passport and safe conduct out of France.
On one level the novel is a roman à clef based on the life of Paul Touvier, a functionary of the Vichy government who after the war was found guilty of war crimes, sheltered by the Catholic church, and pardoned by President Georges Pompidou. He was rearrested in 1989, eventually found guilty of crimes against humanity, and imprisoned. Touvier’s situation uncomfortably revealed to the French people the collaboration of the Church, the police, and many compliant citizens with the Nazi regime and the ways in which other more influential war criminals evaded punishment and even prospered socially and financially after the war. Moore has sought to examine the plight of one of the small fish who could not escape a tightening net of social and political pressure.
The novel can also be seen as a highly literate thriller replete with governmental and religious intrigue. The action is swiftly paced, as Brossard races through Provence and his pursuers each desperately scramble to stay a step or two behind him. Brossard has a remarkable instinct for danger and intuitively senses its presence with all the acuity of a threatened animal in the wild. A curious irony of his character, however, is his inability to discern that Vionnet is his betrayer and source of his greatest danger rather than an erstwhile protector.
The novel also presents a probing psychological study of a depraved soul in torment. On the surface, the central situation—a Nazi sympathizer escaping justice—does not provoke sympathy in most readers. Yet Moore has so finely developed his character that Brossard is by turns thoroughly contemptible and oddly pitiable. Throughout the first half of the novel, the only evidence of his crime comes in the words of others and in the Church’s embrace of the man, especially by his confessor and longtime champion, Monsignor Maurice Le Moyne, which suggests he may be wrongly accused. Eventually, though, he dreams of his crime and late in the narrative even admits to himself that it is the one sin for which he has never been absolved and that Jews are the worst evil in the world.
Brossard is a thoroughly self-absorbed creature. His life revolves around self-preservation, and as part of that self- preservation he has developed a keen sense of absolving self- justification. He truly sees himself as a victim and even a hero; he stood up for the true France, he battled the infidels, he was loyal to the misunderstood Marshal Philippe Pétain, and he is the darling of the true Apostolic Church. His anguish over failing to confess to the monsignor his execution of...
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